Downward dog is a pose we do over and over again, but how many of us are really doing it? Like anything that we do often, it receives less and less of our attention and we begin to take it for granted.
Lets talk about some common misalignments in downward dog, how to remedy them, variations of downward dog and some things to consider advancing toward.
Options for transitioning into Downward Dog:
1. Wide Legged Childs Pose
This is a personal favourite of mine. It not only measures a fairly accurately length of a students downward dog, but also provides some time for breath work and teaching actions in the arms and shoulders without having to worry about the lower half of the body.
Have the students place their knees wide, big toes touching and arms forward alongside the ears. Leave plenty of mat space for the arms and finger tips to extend to avoid students having to readjust when they come into down dog, which will defeat the intention of prepping in this posture.
After a few breaths with limp arms, a soft belly and heavy hips; begin to crawl the finger tips forward as long as possible, emphasizing the length down the left and right side of the body between the fingertips and the waist. Steeple the fingers creating tents with the hands, activating the arms, the forearms will lift away from the mat. Maintain this engagement and begin to roll the shoulders out away from the ears and slide the shoulder blades down the back, lengthening your neck.
Reground the palms, spread the fingers and place a extra pressure into the inner hands (the thumb and index knuckles). Begin to activate your torso, no longer allowing the body to hang passively toward the mat. Hug the front ribs into your body toward the back ribs, hugging your navel in and up. Take a deep breath in, curl the toes under, and as you exhale pike the hips up into downward dog. Ideally the placement of the hands and feet are where they should be for downward dog but students may need to make a few minor adjustments. Student will have a second opportunity to measure their downward dog when exploring transitions between plank and downward dog.
2. Table Top / Cat - Cow
Another great prep pose for Downward Dog, with lots of space to squeeze in alignment points and creative stretching. If teaching Cat Cow, return students to a neutral spine. Wrist creases parallel with the top edge of the mat, spread the fingers, adding extra pressure to the inner hands. Loop the shoulders up back and down. Instruct a straight line from tailbone, to hips and shoulders and the crown of the head. Avoid dropping the head or looking direction forward so the back of the neck stays long. Root down through the hand to push up between the shoulder blades as you continue to reach the chest forward. Instruct hugging the belly button toward the low back and slightly up toward the chest. Draw the front, floating ribs inward, feelings the back body begin to inflate and fill. At first, and for some time, it will really feel like we are over arching our backs as our bodies are not as familiar with these actions. Commonly, students will over arch their low back, spreading the sitting bones and pointing the tailbone upward. Wrap the tailbone in the direction of the heels.
These cues are a little more accessible in table top and will repeat through the practice and prep them to receive the downward dog cues more accurately. From here, students can walk their hands one 'hand' step forward of the shoulders, curl the toes under and press up into downward dog.
Every pose has a foundation, where your body connects to the floor. This connection is where we draw our strength from, where we build our stability and explore gravity. That being said, identifying and solidifying the foundation of each pose is essential to the practice. In downward dog, our connection to the earth are the hands and feet. We begin here and make our way up.
Have students place their hands the width of their outer shoulders. This a simple adjustment you could offer your students if you noticed their hands placed incorrectly. As mentioned previously, wrist creases are parallel to the top edge of the mat. For some students it helps to instruct having either the index or middle finger pointing to the top of the mat, this gives students a little wiggle room to decide what feels best for their bodies. Spread the fingers, although the thumb does not spread to it's full potential. Root the finger pads and knuckles firmly into the mat. This seems simple enough when it is only the hands we are concerned with but as the practice deepens, we quickly forget these cues. It is very helpful to repeat these cues through the practice. When the weight is not distributed correctly, all of the weight dumps into the wrists, leaving practitioners vulnerable to wrist injuries. If teaching Vinyasa, note that it is even more difficult to maintain this grounding in plank and upward dog and is a great correction to teach. When the foundation of the pose is present and strong, the rest of the pose will radiate in response.
The width of the feet is debated, and varies depending on the school of practice. The same goes for the positioning of the heels in relation to the floor. That being said the most important thing is safe alignment. More commonly the heels are seen lifted from the floor though the students is actually pressing energetically down through the heels. In traditions where the heels are taught rooted, the student will either have to work toward that flexibility or shorten their dog. Either way, you shouldn't be able to see your ankles when you look between your legs as your heels should be in line with your second and third toes. For the majority of students, the hamstrings are too tight to even straighten the legs with the heels lifted. Lets talk about that. With tight hamstrings, it's great to offer a downward dog with the legs wider than the outer hips. Maybe this is just at the beginning of class for a warm up, but some students will benefit from keeping this variation for awhile. Bicycling the legs out in the warm up is also effective for lengthening the hamstrings. Keeping the knees bent throughout the practice and for some time is a great variation in response to tight hamstrings and solves other misalignments which we will get into shortly.
Arms & Shoulders:
Often students rely on their joints to create and maintain a posture. Not only can this lead to contraindications, but often strips the students of their practice potential.There is a tendency to translate the hands rooting and length of the arms into over extending the top of the arm bone out of the shoulder sockets. Have your students plug their arm bones back into their shoulder sockets. Externally rotate your shoulders away from your ears and firm the muscles of your arms as though you are squeezing something between them. Draw your shoulder blades down your back, away from your ears, lengthening your neck. Wrap your elbows in toward each other as you energetically try to point your thumbs forward without actually moving the hands.Keep an eye out for student with hyperextended elbows and have them unlock the joint. If you are a beginner, some of these alignment cues require a significant amount of body awareness. Do what you can, explore your body and just keep practicing. Extract the simpler cues pertaining to more gross (large) movements, positioning and injury prevention and go from there.
Some students have 'lazy legs'. They need to be reminded to activate their legs and how. Engage the thighs to lift the knee caps. Spin your inner thighs back, spreading the sitting bones and reach the tailbone long. A cue like 'spin your inner thighs back' can be very ambiguous and a good metaphor can really help. I think metaphors are a great place to express your own unique touch and personality. Notice the student who needs to drop their heels and fire up their legs, if they avoid these actions they are likely putting too much weight into their wrists and shoulders.
Torso & Spine:
Often times, downward dog is referred to as a upside down V. You will see many bodies however that are unable to make that shape without some intelligent adjustments that is. When you see a very rounded spine, it's an indicator that the hip flexors, hamstrings or shoulders are tight. It could also signal a spinal condition but the hope is the student would have already shared this with you. When you see the opposite, a dramatically arched low back, it often indicates the student is hyper flexible. This is common in dancers, gymnists, and long term yogis that are not engaging their core or practicing Uddiyana Bandha. ( I will discuss this subject another time. ) If the former is true, here is another instance where bending the knees can help. Doing so creates more mobility in the pelvis, adjusting the position of the spine. For the latter, resist the urge to passively let the chest hang between the arms. Rather, draw the low ribs into the body and the hip bones toward the navel. Keep your arms parallel to the upper arms and your collar bones wide.
Explore these cues in your own body and in your instruction. As instructors it is so tempting to say a million cues because you just want to share everything you know but this will make for a very overwhelming experience for your students. Choose your cues intelligently. Strategize your cues by teaching similar poses with overlapping actions and cues so that you can continuously build on top of what have already shared.
This marks the first of my posts on asanas and alignment. Stay tuned for more to come !